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AutoConscience Update 3

AutoConscience Update 3

The site is a lot prettier now. More importantly it better presents the narrative of why someone would use AutoConscience.

We’re trying to remove the anonymity of drivers. So when you a do good thing on the road you get thanked. If you do something bad someone will be there to see it and call you out on it.

There isn’t a lack of witnesses to bad driving. It’s just that the social scorn for doing something wrong on the road doesn’t get communicated to the driver so he (or she) continues the behavior.

Research backs up the notion that the anonymity of motoring encourages bad driving behavior. If you’re interested to learn more check out Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (by Tom Vanderbilt). The book is an interesting exploration of the causes, and some consequences, of traffic.

On the development front the team is working away at both the app and the site. By tomorrow the site should be functionally complete with a report screen, log in page and community goals.

For the app we are now focusing on the gamification aspect to further encourage users to keep reporting. We’re looking for beta testers so if you’re interested drop us a note in the comments or via this link.

We’re still on target to have the app on the Google app store within this month.

Net metering – selling your solar power in the Philippines

Net metering – selling your solar power in the Philippines

So since late May 2017 I’ve had solar panels on my roof. But I had to wait more than 4 months, early Oct 2017, until I could sell the excess power I generate from those panels.

What happens between the installation of the panels and the selling of your excess power? Net metering.

Basically net metering is the term for getting your local electrical utility (in my case Meralco) to buy the excess power you generate. All utilities are required b law to offer net metering to their customers. From the term itself you can probably already guess that net metering involves properly measuring the power you generate and crediting you accordingly.

It sounds simple but there’s a lot of red tape involved in getting your net metering approved.

Before I detail my experience, please note that you do not need net metering in order for your solar panels to work. You only need metering to sell your excess energy. For example, you are generating 2.5kw but are only using .5kw. What happens to the excess energy of 2kw? If you do not have net metering then it is simply wasted, you do not get any money for it. With net metering your local utility will buy your excess power from you and pay you for it.

Without net metering solar panels can still be economical, especially if you generally consume more energy than you produce. Generally though you will need net metering to get the most value from your solar panels.

A run down of how I got net metering:

  1. Went to my local Meralco office, looked for the guy handling residential net metering
  2. Guy came over to the house, looked at the set up, reported back to Meralco
  3. Meralco required me to pay for an energy feasibility study of my area. This was kind of funny as Meralco wrote it like they were offering their services to me – as if I had a choice on who to get for the study.
  4. Meralco required me to enroll my Meralco bill under an auto debit arrangement (This is required for Meralco accounts which are less than a year old. I fell under this as I had just bought my house so the Meralco account was new.)
  5. Meralco required me to move my main breaker outside of my house and onto the street level. In case of a power interruption Meralco is afraid the electrical wires in my area will still have juice in them since my solar panels are still producing power. The breaker outside is to allow Meralco’s repair crew access to shut down the power in my house. This was the most expensive part of getting net metering and it is unnecessary to boot. See my discussion below.
  6. Because I had to monkey around with shifting my breaker outside the house I had to get a certificate from my city (Makati) saying that they inspected the new set up and everything was fine. (A lot of people get stuck on this process since getting your LGU to do inspections is excruciating.)
  7. I had to pay a nominal fee to the Energy Regulatory Commission which issued some certificate saying that I am registered to produce energy. (Again, more red tape and paper work.)
  8. Meralco changed my meter to a digital meter which can monitor how much energy I’m selling to them

So all of the above took a lot of time, more than 4 months. Again it’s frustrating that you’re trying to do something good (solar panels generate clean energy) but the regulations make it extremely time consuming in order for you to realize that good.

It’s doubly frustrating because parts of the process can be streamlined. Take steps 5 and 6. Meralco’s fears of my lines still being electrified during a brownout are unjustified since my inverter (the device which converts the power generated by the panels, which is direct current, into power which can be used for the home, which is alternating current), like all other modern inverters, automatically turns off when external power is cut. So in the event of a brownout, my inverter will turn off. Without the inverter there won’t be any power flowing from the panels to my home or the electrical wires outside my home. As such there is no need for the Meralco repair crew to have access to my breaker.

Having to move my breaker was also costly as I had to hire a contractor to do this. Fortunately the contractor took care of procuring the certificate from Makati City Hall (step 6). For that alone I was willing to pay them for their service. The contractor was recommended by Meralco but you can get anyone you feel comfortable with. In the end the contractor did good work and I certainly appreciated not having to deal with city hall. Still steps 5 and 6 were expensive. And this is on top of your cost for the panels.

Finally though, after more than 4 months, everything is completed and I am selling my excess power to Meralco.

AutoConscience Update 2

AutoConscience Update 2

Since last week we’ve had several iterations of the alpha version of the app. All of the basic functionality is in place but there’s still a lot of polishing to do. A lot of the work has to do with stitching all of the different parts of the app so that they all interact well each other.

Conceptually it’s a simple app but once you get down to brass tacks (What does this button do? How does the user get to his profile?) everything becomes a lot harder as every little detail is a deliberate decision.

Aside from the development of the app we’re also devoting a lot of time to getting the website up and running. In the ideal scenario our users would find value in both the app and the site as the site presents a lot more information than the app can.

Most importantly the site highlights Community Goals. Whenever someone reports, regardless if it’s an anonymous reporter or registered user, points are added to the Community Score. Once a certain score is reached a Community Goal is achieved. A lot of the Goals will be freebies for our users, such as free gas for 10 registered users.

The Community Goals will be our way of thanking users and they add further incentive to keep reporting. I would also like to add Community Goals which address the impact of motor vehicles – such as planting trees or sponsoring tune ups for PUVs so they won’t smoke belch anymore.

All our design decisions boil down to making users feel that their reports make a positive difference to traffic and contribute to a better driving experience for everyone.

We are still on track to have the app available for download via the Google Play Store sometime in October. The site will also need to have basic functionality by then as the app and the site go hand and hand. Crossing my fingers we can pull this off!

AutoConscience Update 1

AutoConscience Update 1

It’s been about 3 weeks since we pitched at Startup Summit. In that time the team has been hard at work overhauling the interface and actually coding the app.

The back end is somewhat complete and the focus this week has been the front end.

Along the way we were hit with some unsexy problems, the kind that you don’t read about in the glossy magazine write ups of startups. We had to replace one of the computers since its AMD CPU wasn’t playing nicely with Visual Studio (VS). The new computer then had to go through the usual Windows install and then VS install. The internet at the office is so slow that I had to bring the computer back home and download VS there. After the new computer was up and running some VS sync problems cropped up between our 2 work computers.

It’s basically third world development problems. I don’t think devs in the US or Singapore have to worry about slow internet or coding on budget machines.

Honestly I thought one could code on just about any computer but modern development these days isn’t like that. These IT problems are minor but annoying and really slow down the workflow of a small team.

We’ve settled on Android Kitkat as our default template OS for the Android version. This is based on the assumption that most Android devices in the Philippines are older models which will most likely be running Kitkat and not Lollipop or Nougat (definitely not Oreo).

Heck, my personal phone is a Moto X which still runs on Kitkat.

To be clear, our ambitions extend beyond the Philippine market. Crowded cities all around the world (eg. in Indonesia, China or South America) are potential markets for AutoConscience. But the Philippines will be our first market so we’re tailoring the app to suit Philippines users. If we do manage to expand overseas the app will evolve along with that change.

The current timeline is to have an internal working Alpha version in a week or 2. By October AutoConscience should be available for download from the Android Playstore.

I’ll leave you with pictures of the new interface and logo. I think they look like quite spiffy.

Philippine Startup: AutoConscience

Philippine Startup: AutoConscience

So the last business I set up an eternity ago (6 years to be precise) is chugging along nicely. It makes money. Guests are, overall, happy. But to be honest, Alcoves has become a little boring for me. Yes I’m extremely grateful that the apartments are renting well and I’ve poured a lot of hard work into the “buffet apartment hotel”. But I’ve been itching for awhile now to launch another crazy idea.

As such, I’ve gathered a small team and together we’re creating an app to help ordinary people fight Manila traffic. We want to build something that is so useful and simple that anyone on the road can use it to improve road conditions.

(Any idea that even attempts to alleviate traffic in Manila is foolhardy so I thought this would be an interesting challenge.)

The app itself is simple – it will allow you to report good and bad driving behavior. We hope that since drivers will be able to receive a lot of feedback, almost in real time, they will be encouraged to do more of the good driving (signalling, using proper lanes, not blocking the intersection) and less of the bad (swerving, smoke belching, not signalling, etc.)

AutoConscience (that’s our app) is still in development but we hope to launch it by October 2017. This early we’ve already gotten some interest – we were one of the finalists at the 2017 Startup Summit Philippines.

This is a new challenge for me – leading a team purely focused on a software product. I taught myself HTML and CSS in the past but do not consider myself a technical founder. So in short the odds are high that this will be a spectacular failure! At the very least it will be exciting.

Choosing a solar panel installer in the Philippines

Choosing a solar panel installer in the Philippines

I’ve always wanted solar panels on my roof but neither had the clearance (been living with other people) nor the money to install them where I lived. Recently though I’ve moved to my own place so clearance was no longer a problem. As for the cost I was able to strike a business deal which covered most of the cost of the panels (more on that later).

There are a ton of solar panel installers in the Philippines. Before I tell you who I finally chose I’ll just give an overview of how it was to deal with them and how much they quoted for a 3kw system. (Note this was in 2016, prices may have changed by the time you read this.)

Solaric – No one responded to my inquiries so I had no quote from them.
Solar Philippines – Also no response.
Matec Solar Power – Around PHP360,000 for a 3kw system. This is all in, the price includes the panels, the inverter and installation.
Sol Energy Systems – The person spoke to couldn’t give me a quote and asked me to call back :l
United Solar – Initially the price was PHP300,000 but they were nice enough to reduce it to PHP285,000.
Miester Solar – Also no response.

So while there a lot of solar installers in the Philippines (and I’m sure there are many more that I did not contact), a lot of them could invest more in better sales staff.

I eventually chose United Solar and I am quite happy with them. One of the main reasons for my choice was because my primary contact there, Monica, was helpful and very conscientious about following up with me. The follow ups weren’t pushy but they were quite regular, around every 3 weeks or so. Even after I decided not to get solar (eventually I changed my mind) she would still touch base every now and then. It wasn’t a hard sell though, just an occasional reminder which I appreciated.

A large factor also was the cost, United Solar was the cheapest quote I got for a 3kw system. Usually you get what you pay for and I’m wary of the cheapest cost but since communication with United Solar was always very prompt, and they seemed to be on the ball, I decided to risk it.

The panels arrived around a month after I paid the 50% downpayment and installation took a day. The reason for the delay was the inverter was stuck in customs. The installation was very clean and the inverter fit nicely into the space we chose.

The installers and the head guy leading the installation, Bryan, were all nice and pleasant. Bryan in particular took the time to explain some of the numbers behind solar operation in the Philippines.

TL/DR: If you’re looking to buy solar panels in the Philippines, I fully recommend United Solar.


Bougainvillea Cutting Propagation

Bougainvillea Cutting Propagation

In my last few posts I shared that I’ve recently moved house. I wanted to bring some of the old house with me though in the form of plants.

Just digging them out of the ground, roots and all, didn’t seem very sporting. I wanted a mix of the old and the new. (Get a plant by its roots and you just have the old plant.) So I set about getting cuttings. They are what they sound like, you cut a part of an existing plant and hope that you can grow it into a new, separate plant.

My new place has a wide roof deck with lots of sun, perfect for a few plants. I chose Bougainvillea as it’s quite hardy, likes the sun and has a pretty bloom of flowers when it’s in the mood.

I also hope to eventually make the Bougainvillea crawl down the side of my townhouse, forming a shade against the sun for the rooms as well as making the facade more appealing.

So how do you cut Bougainvillea for propagation? I have zero gardening skills but managed to do it so I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

Super easy: cut off a few branches, stick those branches into the ground. Wait a couple of weeks.

Did I mention my gardening skills were zero? And yet they grew. New sprouts/buds will appear at the ends of the branches so try to get a branch with a lot of tertiary branches growing from it.

Bougainvillea likes its soil dry, do not overwater.

LPG prices vary depending on the supplier and location

LPG prices vary depending on the supplier and location

I have to buy LPG frequently to power the gas dryers we use for Alcoves.

Before I thought LPG prices were uniform – the same regardless of where you bought them.

I was wrong. I have 2 sources of LPG and the price difference is quite large:

  1. EC Gas – PHP570 (delivered to my house in Makati)
  2. Regasco – PHP425 (I pick it up personally from their store in Tejeron, Manila. This is very close to the Makati-Manila border, right after Puregold Makati.)

You may be wondering why I still buy from EC Gas if Regasco is so much cheaper. For one, I already bought the EC Gas tank before I found out that Regasco was cheaper. If I leave the EC Gas tank unfilled now then my purchase would just be a waste. Two, the EC Gas tank (in its see through plastic) is a lot nicer and cleaner to look at so I might as well keep using it.

Whatever the cost of LPG though it’s still a lot cheaper for me to buy LPG than to use an electric dryer.


Hydroponics Supplier in the Philippines

Hydroponics Supplier in the Philippines

I’ve been looking to dabble in hydroponics. This is a method of growing plants mostly in water (hence “hydro”). As there is no, or very little, soil, you must introduce nutrients into the water for the plants to grow.

In theory hydroponics is a more efficient way of growing crops as it allows greater productivity per area than traditional farming methods.

Hydro Set up 1
The extended frame (for a roof) is something I added on later. The blue PVC tubes, also a DIY add on from,  are support for LED lights which I’ve positioned above the grow holes. I experimented with just exposing the plants (lettuce) to LEDs but was underwhelmed by the results. Hence I’m trying to grow more lettuce the old fashioned way, under the sun.

In the Philippines there is currently a manufacturer of hydroponic frames. They will construct a frame based on your specifications (number of holes, whether is the horizontal or vertical type, etc.) and you can pick it up from their store in Laguna or have it delivered to you.

I’ve ordered from this manufacturer, Hydroponics Garden Supply (HGS) and was generally happy with the service and quality of the product.

It’s a good starter product but as you use it some minor problems do crop up: You’ll have to fuss around a bit to get the pump to deliver water to the tray (I suspect the provided pump is under powered) and the feed tubes for the water are so thin they easily get clogged up.

Hydro Set up 2

Along with the frame, HGS also provided seeds, a seedling tray, quality soil and most importantly 1 bottle each of Snap A and Snap B.

The Snap products are a Philippine invention, they’re the nutrients you mix into the water to ensure that the plants have everything they need in order to grow.

Mix snap A and B in water and you’re ready to go.

HGS claimed that there would be an instructions manual as well (I’m not sure if this was a manual for using the hydroponic frame or growing plants with the frame) but I did not find any.

I managed to grow a crop of lettuce which my family ate before I could take any pictures. I’ve started on a second crop though, experimenting with some things which will hopefully boost the yield.

I’m actually looking forward now to making my own hydroponic frame, based on other designs I’ve found online and the experience I’ve gathered so far.

Whale sharks in the Philippines: Donsol or Oslob

Whale sharks in the Philippines: Donsol or Oslob

For nature lovers and adventure junkies, one of the attractions in the Philippines is getting the chance to swim with whale sharks. Whale sharks, or butanding as they are known locally, are the largest living species of fish.

If you’re interested in swimming with these gentle giants (whale sharks eat plankton and are not aggressive) then you can either go to Donsol (in Sorsogon) or Oslob (in Cebu).

So which place is better?

I’ve done both and I would strongly recommend going to Donsol instead of Oslob.

Image courtesy of wikimedia.
A butanding. Image courtesy of wikimedia.

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